Bruce Dembofsky is the innovation director at Avantor, experienced in both drug discovery science and optimizing lab operations.
Q: Please tell us about your career journey to date, and what drives you.
A: My career started in early discovery research, first in biotech and later in pharmaceuticals with AstraZeneca. After about a decade at the bench, I started getting more involved in lab operations, informatics, and design. That led me to the consulting and innovation portfolio work that I do today at Avantor.
The innovation space is similar to discovery, trying to find and deliver new solutions. I still feel that pressure—patients that need cures—and we want to make the process faster and more efficient. That's what drives my interest in innovating the entire drug discovery process as well as the science.
Q: What are the fundamental requirements to fostering innovation?
A: Recognizing the distinction between being productive and being busy is important. Innovation requires us to look beyond the short term—to say, “we need to get stuff done, but how will we do it better, faster, more cost-effective tomorrow?”
The foundational requirement is that mindset to invest for the future. It’s like the difference between a savings account and the stock market—you can put your pennies in the savings account every day, be safe and make a little return. But occasionally you need to put some time and money at risk to invest.
Q: What advice do you have for labs and businesses that want to promote creativity?
A: Have true openness to new ideas and to collaboration. Make time and be willing to get different groups of people together to share ideas. Ideas build upon each other and are usually best when two or three different, but related ideas come together. All ideas are good ideas. Let's share them and have that open dialogue with collaborators.
Q: How do the innovation pipeline and Lab of the Future services help labs innovate?
A: It comes back to the idea of co-innovation, engaging our partners, customers, and internal teams to look at how we can help as a service provider and distributor, to help labs be more efficient, more effective, productive, and faster to market.
We're focused on data and the supply chain issues now—how to connect systems to each other and the supply chain and automate the process. We're working on using sensors and the Internet of Things to get better data and forecasts to increase automation.
Q: How do you think that innovation fosters change and is it worth the risk?
A: I think the risk is if you don't do it. Avoid investing only in things with a short-term payback. Innovation will always have some unknown aspect to it. An example is predictive forecasting—the technology is evolving rapidly, so you have to decide whether investing today is strategic versus waiting and playing catch-up later. It's a double-edged sword, everyone's going to have a different tolerance.
Q: Are digital solutions the answer to productivity?
Technology is critical, but it's when the people, the process, and the tech work together that you get the innovation. It's the speed, cost, quality triangle. If you apply innovation, leveraging new tech, you often can have all three. The iPhone is a cool gadget, but it’s a tool that enabled innovation like Uber, Yelp, and FaceTime that really changed the deal for us as humans.
A lot of tech in the lab, like the ELN and predictive algorithms, are the tools, and as innovators, we want to ask how we can use these to improve—to help people have better lives, help cure disease, or get drugs to market faster. These are life-changing things. Innovation takes people coming together collaborating.